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Smoking-Drinking Danger Proven a No-Brainer

Combo builds up body toxins that can damage brain cells, study shows

WEDNESDAY, July 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Lighting up a smoke while downing a few drinks could be as dangerous as mixing and matching prescription drugs, a new study says.

Researchers in Texas found nicotine lowered the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in the blood of rat pups, so more alcohol was needed to reach intoxication. And more alcohol in the body causes more damage, they say.

When alcohol metabolizes, explains the study's lead author, Wei-Jung A. Chen, toxic substances known as aldehydes build up and damage cells in the brain, liver and heart.

So, Chen contends, if smoking makes you drink more, more of those harmful toxins will build up in your brain, adding injury to insult.

"A lot of times people are smoking and drinking, not knowing the interactions between the drugs," says Chen. They may know it's bad to mix alcohol and cocaine, or other drugs, but they may not be thinking about the interactions between these two "legal, but pretty bad drugs."

"This is an interesting piece of work," says Edward Levin, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. But, he adds, "in terms of the impact of smoking on drinking behavior," there could be other reasons besides the interactions between nicotine and alcohol.

Chen and his team at Texas A&M University System Health Science Center gave measured doses of nicotine and alcohol to neonatal lab rats, finding that the peak BAC was lowered by the nicotine, so it took more alcohol to reach an intoxication level. Chen estimates the lab dose that was used might equal a pack a day of cigarettes for humans.

"We've learned from previous studies that certain (brain) cell populations are wiped out from the alcohol," says Chen. "There is evidence the hippocampus [a long-term memory storage area in the brain] is vulnerable, affecting memory. And the cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination, is a region sensitive to alcohol injury."

These are not cells that regenerate, adds Chen. "Once they're gone, they're gone."

These findings, says Chen, hold particular interest for fetal alcohol syndrome. The stage of brain development in the neonatal rats closely represents the brain growth in a human fetus in the third trimester, he says.

Alcohol "is pretty nasty and can do a lot of damage to the fetus. If you now compound that with smoking, which might increase the consumption of alcohol, you are voluntarily hurting the fetus more than anticipated," he says.

But, he adds, further studies are needed to investigate the mechanisms responsible for nicotine's effect on BAC, and to translate these findings to adult humans.

Levin agrees.

"We need further work to study what mechanisms are at work," he says. It might be the aldehydes, which Levin says are short-lived, or it could be other ingredients, such as ethanol. "This study is certainly deserving of follow-up."

Although reluctant to make the leap from the rats to humans at this point, Chen says the best advice is: "If you have to consume alcohol, don't mix it with smoking."

And, he adds, these findings should not encourage people to smoke so they can drink more.

The study appears in the July issue of Alcoholism:Clinical & Experimental Research.

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SOURCES: Interviews with Wei-Jung A. Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor, anatomy and neurobiology, Texas A&M University System Health Science Center, Houston; Edward Levin, Ph.D., associate professor, department of psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; July 2001 Alcoholism:Clinical & Experimental Research
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